“Embracing Each Other is a Revolutionary Act”: Uncovering Privilege
In Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian’s Uncovering Privilege series, participants are invited to share about an experience (or experiences) in which they realized that they had privilege in a certain aspect or aspects of their social identities, what they have chosen to do with that information, and what their journey has been like since then.
Today’s entry features Sarah Elizabeth.
The first time I noticed my privilege as a white person was in high school. I was in the 10th grade and I was quite the unmanageable, unruly child due to a myriad of circumstances in my home and in my environment. I had little guidance as a teenager and was very much on my own from about the age of 15 on.
I found comfort and acceptance in the communities of color that made up the tapestry of my friendships and the people who I genuinely loved. I started recognizing I was different from my friends on several occasions, but the ones that stick out for me are the ones where I was a witness to the racism my friends experienced.
I remember walking through a grocery store parking lot when I was 16 and an old white man yelling “you should have never been born!” out of his car window at myself and my motley crew of friends with a similar life to mine: those of us on our own. Was the old man yelling this to us because everyone else in the group was black and Mexican, or was he yelling at me – the white girl in a crowd of young men of color?
Back then we laughed, threw up our middle finger at the guy and joked about it for the rest of the evening. It is only as an adult I recognize the poignancy. And yet, throughout my high school experience I knew white people saw me differently as a white person who hung out with people of color.
There was the time a white male teacher approached me in the hallway and with venom dripping from his lips stated “your parents must be so ashamed of you” in reference to the fact that my boyfriend was black and my best friend was Mexican and my loyalty lived in the brown-skinned shades of friendships I held tightly to me as I survived my life through the love I held for the same people this teacher so abusively proclaimed as shameful.
I remember driving in a predominately black neighborhood in my city to visit friends and being pulled over by police and asked “do your parents know where you are?” I remember being pulled over as the only white person in a car full of black people and asked if my car could be searched. I remember being called a wigger. A white n*****. I remember being told I was “going through a phase” and would “eventually grow out of it” because of who I surrounded myself with. Because I did not uphold the value of sticking to my own race, and I did not sit at the white table, or the black table, in the racially segregated high school cafeteria… I rotated my days and because of this I was an outcast.
And I internalized the shame and blame and venom that poisoned my young soul into believing I was different and I was unacceptable because white people are not supposed to have THAT MANY friends of color, else we get called wannabes, wiggers, betrayals to our race and squanderers of our inherited privilege.
I knew I had privilege as a white person because whenever my black friends needed to do something important, like go to the bank, or court – they would step back and let me do the speaking. Mind you, we were kids, 17, 18 years old – and I could see the effects racism had on my black friends because at those tender ages they already clearly understood white people talk differently to each other than they do to people of color. I clearly understood as well, it became a game for me – I would show off how “white” and “proper” I could be in order to get the answers and privileges we were seeking.
And so what I could so easily call a game, turn on and off at my discretion, and not have to think about when alone in public with only my white skin as my first impression on people – what I could so easily choose to partake in or decide to shun based solely on my decision of what race I would hang out with – was my inherited privileges as a white person. And so the games of a 17-year-old become the lessons of adulthood, the lessons of recognition that my friends of color had barriers to overcome simply walking into a bank, or the courthouse, or the classroom, or cafeteria, the boardroom or the office –where white values and norms predominate and outcast those who don’t play by the rules of the mainstream, who don’t look and act a certain way – who dissent and reject imperialism as it stands before us.
Embracing each other is a revolutionary act. Embracing each other is an act of dissent.
Recognizing on an intellectual level exactly what white privilege was did not happen until I entered college. It was when I read “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh and found myself nodding my head over and over again that I began to recognize the experiences I had as a youth was a systemic experience for people of color and not something unique.
My “acting white and proper” as a youth was my own developmental understanding of what white privilege meant, albeit ignorant – I felt it. When I presented to other whites as a stereotypical white, middle class female in the way I talked, dressed, and behaved I was rewarded for it. When I surrounded myself with people of color white people were sure to make sure I understood I was a betrayal.
I also think class status has a profound effect on how we view each other, and think we must keep intersectionality in mind when discussing privilege. As an adult I am first and foremost thankful I was able to attend college because this was where my mind was opened to the systemic issues of race and class discrimination and white privilege.
This is not a subject taught or talked about in primary education. Having the childhood experiences I had was what helped me connect the dots, and not view what was being discussed as a theory, which I fear many white youth consider diversity classes to be due to their own limited exposure to these issues.
If one grows up in a small town surrounded only by other white people and only receives exposure to these issues through college diversity classes (which is always the class most complained about), it can be perceived as an attack on whites, it can cause white guilt, and extreme defensiveness.
My journey as a white social worker is to address white privilege and white guilt and defensiveness constructively through compassionate and assertive advocacy while in not only diversity trainings, but also within the everyday dynamics of the work culture and environment.
Making race and class and gender issues a part of the weekly unit meetings, and using myself as the catalyst for change by addressing these topics openly is a wonderful way for me to uphold the social work ethics and values that I hold dear, namely social justice and “use of self.” In an agency dominated heavily by whites, making sure the issues of privilege, guilt, race and class are not ignored is the task at hand in my daily life as a social worker.
To find our more about Sarah Elizabeth, Check out her blog Rooted in Being.
[button link=”https://www.notesfromanaspiringhumanitarian.com/2013/08/25/an-n-a-h-series-uncovering-privilege/” size=”large” target=”_blank”]Read More Stories at The Uncovering Privilege Series’ Showcase[/button]
I am actively seeking submissions for this series
If you’re interested in participating, and would like to contribute to this series and help ensure it’s growth, here are some things you can do.
1. Take some time to reflect on these prompts: Share about an experience in which you realized that you had privilege in a certain aspect or aspects of your identity in terms of different social groups you are a member of. What helped you to recognize that privilege? What have you chosen to do with that information? What has your journey been like since then?
2. Write your responses and send them to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by filling out the contact form here. I may contact you to ask follow-up questions that might be included in the final post, as well as if there were any photos or social media handles you might want to include in your submission as well.
If you would you like to remain anonymous or have some other details about your specific identity removed, let me know that in the details of your message and I will act accordingly.
If writing isn’t your preferred method of communication, you can send a link to a podcast, video, recorded message, photos, art, etc.
3. Share your submission, and this introductory post as widely as you can with others whom you think would also be interested in participating.
We are all both teachers and learners, and I’d love to hear your stories. I am hoping that this effort will serve as a source of connection and support as we navigate our individual, yet connected struggles and growth.
Here’s to “waking up”.
Love & Peace,
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW
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